Connecting Stories, Our British Asian Heritage – Behind the scenes

Have you ever wondered why exhibition spaces are sometimes a little bit dark? Why objects are displayed in the way that they are? How an exhibition is even put together in the first place? Conservator Lucy Angus will explain the stages of preparing and installing our current exhibition ‘Connecting Stories.

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Six months ago I met the British Library Curator Penny Brook who had the difficult task of choosing over 100 objects from collections held at the British Library and Library of Birmingham which would help tell the story of our British Asian heritage. Once Penny had come up with her wish list of objects for inclusion for the exhibition, I was then presented with the objects which included a rare 19th century board game reflecting Britain’s trading interests in Asia, 1940s police reports on meetings of the Indian Workers Association and India League in Birmingham, photographs showing protests and counter-protests in 1960s and 1970s Britain amongst others.

Before and after conservation treatment
[MS 3147/5/ 616]

Upon looking at the objects I had to determine whether the objects were fit for display and what conditions would need to be in place to make sure that the objects were cared for and did not potentially suffer from being displayed. Some factors I considered were the condition of the objects, whether the objects were to be displayed in a case or framed and the potential exposure to light over the course of the exhibition.

Most objects I was shown were thankfully in a good condition and required no conservation treatment. Only a few objects required minor repair with a colour drawing of an Engine House for His Highness the Nabob Vizier of Oude (MS 3147/5/616) requiring the most conservation treatment which included surface cleaning, repair and filling in losses with a sympathetic paper to the original.

Mounting and Framing

Once all objects were assessed and if necessary repaired, it was time for mounting and framing. Materials need to be carefully considered when mounting and framing. All objects need to be on surfaces which do not emit pollutants and are not acidic and the mounting and framing themselves should not cause damage to the objects. All objects for the exhibition were mounted on Timecare Heritage Museum CottonCore board. This board is 100% cotton, has a pH of 7.5-9 and is free from acid, lignin and sulphur. This will therefore not cause any damage to the objects over the exhibition period.

An example of Flush Mounting

Items which were going to be displayed in the museum cases were flush mounted and put onto Perspex slopes with angles not exceeding 60⁰. Flush mounting means that the mount board is 1mm larger all the way around the object and cut to size. The mount board provides additional support to the object. All objects are secured with clear polyester tape and a low tact tape.

Items which were framed were mostly window mounted. The window part of the mount is essentially a border which shows off the object and also protects the object from touching the frame’s glazing.

All bound volumes had to be displayed in cases. All volumes need to be fully supported and this is done by having bespoke book cradles. Once the page that is going to be displayed has been determined, the book is stood upright and the shape is drawn. This is known as ‘profiling.’ Once these drawings have been completed they are sent off to the cradle maker and the book cradles are made to the exact dimensions of the drawing. As all book are completely different sizes it is important that volumes are not sitting on ill-fitting cradles as this could damage the book by putting the book in an unnatural position or even causing the spine to split!

An example of a book cradle

Installing the exhibition

Whilst I had been busily preparing LoB’s objects, the British Library had been preparing their objects for external loan. Their objects (including Miss Jenny!) would have to travel up from London to the library in specialised crates and make the journey up to Birmingham on road. Fine Art couriers make sure the items do not move in transit and that they are in favourable environmental conditions. On arrival in Birmingham, the crates were brought to the gallery space and were unpacked.

As part of the loan agreement, all items from the British Library have individual reports written about their current condition. As the borrower it is our duty to make sure that we care for the items we have borrowed by agreeing and maintaining the conditions that the British Library has set out. I carefully checked the condition of each object one by one and each Condition report was signed off by me and the British Library’s Loans Registrar. Once these had been agreed we could then start putting objects into cases and hang frames on wall. After a few long and tiring days the exhibition was installed.

Un-wrapping the British Library’s framed works

Light levels

One of the biggest risks to objects whilst being displayed is having too much exposure to light. To make sure that the objects on display are not harmed during the exhibition’s run it is essential that the light levels do not exceed more than 50 LUX and that all UV light is eliminated. LUX is used to measure the amount of light output in a given area. It enables us to measure the total “amount” of visible light present and the intensity of the illumination on an object’s surface. Too much exposure to light can cause the object to fade as well as change the physical and chemical structure of the object. UV light is the most destructive and can cause paper to bleach, yellow and weaken, therefore all UV light needs to be filtered out.

We measure the light levels by using an Environmental Meter RH Temp Light (UV & LUX). Once switched on we go around the exhibition space and measure the light levels on each object and the cases making sure that no object that is on display exceeds 50 LUX and 10 µW/Lumen.

Checking the exhibition’s light levels

Once satisfied with the light levels we had a quick tidy up and a sweep so we were ready to open to the public and for people to enjoy and explore the exhibition.

Lucy Angus
Conservator

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